New Jersey Agency Lax On Doctor Sanctions Following Malpractice

New Jersey’s State Board of Medical Examiners proclaims its mission as the protection of the public’s health, safety and welfare. Functionally, that means providing licenses to medical professionals, adopting practice standards, looking into allegations of misconduct and, most important of all, meting out discipline to physicians who fail to provide competent, qualified and ethical service to patients.

But a report from the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen finds that the board failed to discipline 57 percent of licensed health professionals whose practice privileges had been restricted by hospitals due to behavior or performance.

Public Citizen’s ongoing oversight of state medical licensing boards over the past decade has resulted in repeated criticism of the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners, which oversees more than 33,000 doctors in the state. In 2009, the board was presented with 1,017 complaints and dismissed all but seven percent. The remaining cases resulted in 45 temporary suspensions of medical licenses and 24 revoked or surrendered licenses.

The report mentioned one New Jersey doctor who was twice subjected to hospital proceedings to deny or suspend his practice privileges. The doctor paid out over $1 million in settlements or damages in seven separate New Jersey medical malpractice cases over a ten-year period. Two of his patients were permanently injured, and the cases involved a variety of substandard practices, including misdiagnosis and departures from standard surgical techniques. Yet this doctor never faced discipline by the New Jersey Board.

Sidney Wolfe, Public Citizen’s director of health research, finds such numbers troubling and has called on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to thoroughly investigate this national problem. “Either state medical boards are receiving this disturbing information from hospitals but not acting upon it, or much less likely, they are not receiving the information at all. Something is broken and needs to be fixed.” Wolfe supervised the group’s comprehensive analysis of the National Practitioner Data Base, a clearinghouse for state disciplinary records.

Protecting Patients From Doctor Negligence When Official Oversight Fails

Medical malpractice can result from any area of health care practice, from birth injuries and emergency room mistakes to post-surgical errors and nursing home injuries. When any health care professional, whether a nurse, pharmacist, anesthesiologist, family doctor or surgeon, departs from accepted standards of care and that negligence results in an injury or prolonged illness, the patient or surviving family members can seek justice.

Ideally, our systems of public oversight protect patients by keeping negligent or unqualified practitioners from gaining or retaining a license to practice. But even the most rigorous regulation cannot prevent every human error. A surgeon with a solid record may perform wrong-site surgery due not to his or her own mistake, but because of an administrative error for which the hospital itself is responsible. A nurse may provide an insufficient dosage of crucial medication not because he or she was negligent, but because the pharmacy mislabeled the bottle or provided the wrong pill.

Nonetheless, doctors who have a history of committing medical errors should clearly be sanctioned by state boards, and Public Citizen’s Wolfe characterized the current systems examined in his report as “dangerously lax.” While some states registered rates of serious disciplinary actions against doctors well above five per 1,000 physicians, New Jersey’s rate was only 2.41 and Pennsylvania registered 2.71. But while Pennsylvania’s ranking improved from 45 th to 31 st among U.S. states during the study period, New Jersey’s ranking dropped from 24 th to 40 th.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Attorneys Protect Patient Safety

This trend is particularly troubling for victims of medical malpractice in a time when so-called “tort reform” advocates and insurance companies are working in conjunction with politicians to limit a patient’s ability to recover damages. A strong medical malpractice liability system serves as a powerful safeguard to public health and patient safety, because cost-cutting administrators recognize that they need to improve procedures and enforce protocols or they will suffer financial harm.

When professional negligence, a medication error, surgery complications or a failure to diagnose a treatable condition causes personal injury or wrongful death, aggrieved families need help to overcome the resulting financial distress. Just as important, their pursuit of justice holds negligent health professionals accountable and contributes to safer health care for all patients.